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Brian Powell
Department of Sociology

Tracy James
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Monday, February 12, 2007

Adoptive parents invest more than biological parents in kids

Feb. 12, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Adoptive parents invest more time and financial resources in their children compared with biological parents, according to the results of a national study that challenges the more conventional view -- emphasized in legal and scholarly debates -- that children are better off with their biological parents.

The study, by sociologists at Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Connecticut, found that two-parent adoptive parents not only spend more money on their children, but they invest more time, such as reading to them, talking with their children about their problems or eating meals together.

"Society often tells people that adoption isn't normal," said IUB Professor Brian Powell, who focuses on the sociology of the family. "When people make the decision that they want to have children and then use unusual means to have them, they compensate for the barriers."

The findings of the study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, were published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. Coauthors include Laura Hamilton, a doctoral student in IUB's Department of Sociology; and Simon Cheng, an assistant professor at UConn. The study is available at:

In the United States, 2 percent to 4 percent of households include adopted children, and researchers expect this number to grow. Instead of looking at two-parent adoptive parent households, most research that has examined parental expenditure on children has compared biological parents with stepparent households, single parents or clinical populations that are not nationally representative.

This omission is notable, Powell said, because many of the assumptions used in contemporary legal and scholarly discussions -- some of which translate into legal rulings and public policy -- about the importance of biological parents to the well-being of children rely on these older studies. The authors wrote that "recent court cases regarding same-sex marriage cite this body of research as evidence of the superiority of biological parenthood and, in turn, as a compelling rationale for the current legal definitions of marriage." The article specifically cites two court cases in Washington and New York states that rely on this rationale: Andersen v. King County, which upheld a state law banning same-sex marriage; and Seymour v. Holcomb, where a same-sex marriage ban also was upheld.

In academia, the new findings contradict claims by evolutionary psychologists that parents are born to dote on their biological children more than their adoptive children.

"It really calls into question that people's motivations are really about just passing on their own genes," Powell said.

For this study, the researchers examined data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten-First Grade Waves, which involves a nationally representative sample of U.S. families. Because of the strong impact parental resources can have on children during their early years of schooling, the researchers examined data involving around 13,000 households that included first-graders.

Two-parent adoptive parents, in general, were older and wealthier than biological parents, single parents and stepparents. When financial resources were taken into consideration, the investments by two-parent adoptive parents appeared more similar to two-parent biological parents but still showed an advantage.

The research was supported by the NSF, Spencer Foundation and the American Educational Research Association.

The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal of the 101-year-old American Sociological Association. Sujata Sinha, with the ASA, can be reached at 202-247-9871and

Powell can be reached at 812-855-7624 and

"Adoptive parents, adaptive parents: Evaluating the importance of biological ties for parental investment," American Sociological Review, vol. 72 (Feb.: 95-116).